PROGRESS in Robbie Muirhead’s game is clear since he joined Hearts. Sam Nicholson and Jamie Walker monopolised headlines after Saturday’s win against Hamilton, but Muirhead also made his biggest impression in maroon so far as an impact substitute.
An elegant flick into Nicholson’s path led to the penalty from which Walker put Hearts 2-1 ahead. From a wide-left position, Muirhead then crossed for Nicholson to control and finish a decisive third goal in stoppage-time.
The 20-year-old forward is pushing forcefully for a place in Robbie Neilson’s starting line-up. His endeavour, desire and work-rate are notably greater since he arrived at Tynecastle in June on a one-year contract. He is clearly a motivated young man aiming to secure a longer deal.
Add that ambition and appetite to his undoubted talent and it becomes obvious why he was brought in. Dundee United released him in April just before their relegation to the Championship, but Neilson saw raw potential in the Scotland youth internationalist. He is a development project, and one which is progressing rather nicely.
The next step is to secure that coveted starting berth. “If you want to get a start in games, you first need to make an impact when you come on,” Muirhead explained in an exclusive Evening News interview.
“If you don’t make an impact when you come on, then you’re not really giving yourself a chance. I came on trying to make and impact so, if you set up one and score one, that means you can be in the manager’s thoughts for the next game.
“I’ve just got to be patient. If I can put performances in like I did on Saturday – I was involved in two goals – hopefully I can be pushing for a starting place. I spoke to Stevie Crawford [Neilson’s assistant] and the gaffer and they both gave me positive feedback.
“There is a lot of strength in the squad. We have boys who can sit on the bench and then come on and influence a game, like Sam on Saturday. He wins the penalty and then scores himself. That shows you the quality in our squad. These guys aren’t getting a starting place.”
Muirhead’s influence must put him in contention for the starting line-up for Saturday’s visit to St Johnstone. The only time he has played from kick-off for Hearts was at McDiarmid Park last month in the Betfred League Cup – a game the visitors lost 3-2 to continue their poor recent record at that venue.
At the weekend, he climbed off the substitutes’ bench against Hamilton with 70 minutes played and scores tied at 1-1. Following a welcome cameo contribution, he is now high on confidence for the league trip to Perth.
“For our second goal, it was a pass which came in to me and I just touched it into Sam,” recalled Muirhead. “He ran through and was brought down for the penalty. The third one was a sucker-punch for Hamilton because they were pushing for an equaliser. I managed to get a cross in to Sam at the back post and he did well to finish it.
“The manager has shown a lot of faith in me. I think if we’re chasing a result you need to make attacking changes, which he did. He made a double sub ten minutes before we scored the first goal. Then he brought me on and we got our second and third goals after that. I think it’s more common to change an attacking players than a defensive player when you’re chasing a result.”
Hearts’ victory propelled them to second in the Ladbrokes Premiership with five matches played. Leaders Celtic are just one point ahead but have played a game less. They remain the team to beat this season under Brendan Rodgers.
The feeling within Riccarton is that Hearts players and coaching staff are happy to go about their business quietly. Flying under the radar suits them, although no-one missed the criticism flying just three weeks back. Muirhead points out that his team have, contrary to the opinions of some, enjoyed a strong start to the campaign.
“If you look at us, our first three league games this season were at home to Celtic, away to Aberdeen and home to Inverness,” he said. “Then you look at the games Rangers had: Home to Hamilton, away to Dundee and home to Motherwell.
“Not many people said Rangers had a bad start, but we’re sitting two points ahead of them and we’ve probably played harder games. I think we’ve managed to turn it round. We’ve won three, drawn one and lost one. That’s not a bad start to the season.
“If we keep winning and other teams are losing points, we can keep climbing and get that bit closer to Celtic. Hopefully that will also take us further way from Rangers and Aberdeen.”
The upturn in recent weeks has galvanised most of the dissenting voices who were calling for Neilson’s head just a short time ago. Saturday was Hearts’ third successive win and they are now unbeaten in four matches. The positivity was tangible around Tynecastle at full-time.
“I think the fans are just the same as us. They want the best for the club,” said Muirhead. “They want us to win as much as we can and finish as high as we possibly can. When the fans get behind us like they did at the weekend then we can get the results for them.”